The Future of Whitebark Pine Trees in the West?


Dead and dying whitebark pine trees in the Gallatin National Forest in Montana

Over the past several years, my colleagues and I have written a lot about the whitebark pine tree and the various threats it faces. Those threats are still very much alive and real, but, at the same time, many people, organizations, and government agencies are ramping up their efforts to save this magnificent tree.

The whitebark pine is a tough, resilient, beautiful tree. It anchors the high country of the Northern Rockies and is typically the last tree you see before you get above tree line. Individual whitebark trees are unique, funky, and stunning, as they bend and twist and fight against the realities of life at 9,000 feet in the Northern Rockies. And the open, quiet wildness of a whitebark forest up high in the mountains is spectacular; I love hiking and hunting my way through whitebark.

But the whitebark pine tree is hurting. Badly.

Due to climate change and warmer winter temperatures, mountain pine beetles, a native insect, have been surviving at higher elevations because the prolonged cold snaps needed to kill the beetles have not been occurring. As a result, the beetles have killed their way through whitebark country, leaving a ton of dead trees in their wake. A non-native fungus, white pine blister rust, has also been attacking whitebark. The result has been an epic die-off of this iconic tree.

The death of this tree is a tragic loss, as the whitebark pine is a keystone species that affects the entire ecosystem.  Whitebark pines stabilize the soil, shade snowpack into the summer (which helps delay snow runoff and thus feeds cold water to our rivers later into the spring and summer when it is needed most), and their fatty, nutritious seeds feed Clark’s nutcracker birds, red squirrels, and grizzly bears. The loss of whitebark, therefore, significantly affects snowpack, water availability, vegetation, and wildlife.

In response to whitebark’s deadly downward spiral, NRDC petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on December 8, 2008, to have the whitebark pine listed as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act. In response, the Service concluded in July 2011 that the whitebark pine tree should be listed as threatened or endangered, but higher priorities and a lack of funding precluded listing at that time. Today, whitebark pine remains on the “warranted but precluded” list.

In its finding, the Service concluded that “while individual trees may persist, given current trends the Service anticipates whitebark pine forests will likely become extirpated and their ecosystem functions will be lost in the foreseeable future. On a landscape scale, the species appears to be in danger of extinction, potentially within as few as two to three generations.”

Pretty ominous.

But, notwithstanding the dire reality for whitebark, two good trends exist: (1) people continue to spread awareness of the loss of whitebark, and (2) people are looking for more and more ways to protect, restore, and save this tree.

On Tuesday, the Endangered Species Coalition released a new report, “Vanishing: Ten American Species Our Children May Never See,” which "highlights ten disappearing species and the causes of their dramatic population declines." Whitebark pine is one of the ten species profiled in the report.

A week ago, the New York Times published an article that looked at whether “assisted migration” made sense as an effort to save whitebark pine. This would involve planting whitebark trees farther north than their current range in an effort to give whitebark a better chance at survival in a warming world.

Last weekend, the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation met in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where a U.S. Forest Service nursery has been working to produce strains of whitebark pine that are resistant to white pine blister rust for future planting and restoration efforts.

And just last week we submitted two comment letters to the U.S. Forest Service in support of proposed whitebark restoration projects in the Northern Rockies. One is a proposal to plant 49,500 whitebark seedlings in burned areas on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming. The other is a proposal to protect and restore whitebark pine stands by removing non-whitebark conifers (i.e., sub-alpine fir, Engelmann spruce, etc.) that are encroaching upon healthy, cone-bearing whitbark trees or blocking out young, regenerating whitebark.

This second proposal is for the Hebgen Lake Ranger District on the Gallatin National Forest, which is the large national forest that surrounds Bozeman, where our office is. It’s a place that’s near and dear to my heart, as I have spent a lot of time in the mountains that comprise the Gallatin National Forest hunting, hiking, running, and Nordic skiing. It’s great to see the Gallatin working to protect and restore whitebark, and the biologist and district ranger behind this proposal are excellent.

What is the future for whitebark?

Frankly, it still looks pretty grim. But with all of the various people talking about and looking for solutions to save this incredible tree – not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people that sent a loud and clear message to our world leaders last Sunday that action on climate change is needed now – I remain optimistic.

And I look forward to my next hike or hunt in whitebark country.


My younger brother, Dan (yellow shirt), my son, Otto (eating a stick), and I (blue shirt) starting to get into whitebark at around 8,800 feet in the Gallatin Mountains on a hike this past summer with my wife, Sarah, who snapped the photo.